Prince’s catalogue is as sprawling, diverse, idiosyncratic, and rewarding as any musician’s in history, and we will only hear more of it as his estate begins to organize and package his vast vault of unreleased music. Still, what he put out over the span of his 37-year career could take a lifetime to digest. With that in mind, here are just 10 of the best deep cuts from across his albums, with a playlist at the end.
“When We’re Dancing Close and Slow”
From: Prince (1979)
Slow. Verrrrryyy slow. This track from his breakthrough sophomore album casts a Prince so besotted with his baby that he moves as if in a NyQuil daze. The falsetto, his preferred vocal production in those days, can barely stir itself to enunciate syllables—is he even singing English? The arrangement is spare arrangement, too, just delicate acoustic strums, a couple piano notes, synth wash, and what would become an increasing rarity in a Prince album: prominent drums.
From: Prince (1979)
This power-pop rant aimed at a cartoon deer that won’t fuck him captures our hero before Dirty Mind, beholden to conventional notions of sexual conduct. His guitar crests and falls, a howl of heterosexual rage. In less than a year he’ll invite the deer to join him and his girlfriend in his waterbed. And I’m kidding about the deer.
From: Controversy (1981)
Though a wizard on guitar and an expert at playing and programming keys, Prince is merely a competent percussionist. For this album track, though, he says “fuck that” and discovers the possibilities of the Linn Drum, finding new kinds of thwack and roll in an era where the machines remained knock-kneed. As for the title, listen to his singing—he’s celebrating something, leaving the rest to our imaginations.
From: Around the World in a Day (1985)
Even with 32 years of hindsight and my own judgment, dismissing Around the World in a Day as a failure sounds wrong: double platinum, plus an instant No. 1 in “Raspberry Beret,” right? But expectations were so high in 1985 that fans forked money over for received psychedelic drivel with finger cymbals—which makes the mid-album clamor of “Tamborine” such a delight. Overdubbing himself into infinity so that he sounds like Joni Mitchell as Kate Bush circa The Dreaming, Prince shifts the emphasis from keyboards and guitar to his drumming—he’s got Sheila E in his sights, and he’s going to remind her who wrote the songs on The Glamorous Life. “Tamborine” is a wee thing, a B-side almost, but it’s the only ATWIAD album track foregoing any self-importance.
From the Bright Lights, Big City soundtrack (1987)
So prodigious had been Prince’s recording sessions in 1986 and 1987 that the tracks rejected for Sign ‘o the Times ended as flotsam on later marooned albums. Thanks to the voice manipulations of the “Camille” tracks, for which Prince, at the limits of his imagination, turned himself into a man imitating a woman, “Good Love” flies on the strength of its squiggly guitar line, a keyboard that’s like a telegraph tip-tapping a distress message, and the strangeness of his cybernetic androgyny.
From: Batman (1989)
Using the midrange voice heard on “Sign o’ the Times,” the opening track on the Batman soundtrack is no throwaway. The way in which it marries mixing board tricks to a narrative of unrelenting bleakness surpasses “Sign o’ the Times” to my ears. Over a hip hop and house-indebted back beat and samplers, Prince sings about a guy named Yellow Smiley who offers him X “like he’s drinkin’ 7-Up.” It’s very “Diamond Dogs” (think Halloween Jack). “I have seen the future and it will be…” he trails off, reminding us that he always tried to imagine what silence looked like.
“The Question of U”
From: Graffiti Bridge (1990)
A kissing cousin of this soundtrack album’s “Joy in Repetition,” “The Question of U” is no great shakes as a tune but is an example of how Prince could built an elaborate structure on such a banal foundation. Key to its success: how the melody is unresolved, approaching a precipice, before his guitar repeats the trick but won’t nudge it off. Meanwhile handclaps appear and exotic keyboards flutter in the background as the drums make a vulgar squelching sound. It’s four minutes long but could be fourteen.
From: Love Symbol (1992)
Prince doing lovers rock? In 1992? Sure. UB40 was still scoring top tens. Over a trash can beat borrowed from the previous year’s “Gett Off” and the lightest and lithest of skanks, Prince coaxes his lover with the most conventional of fantasies and damn near gets away with it. Because lord knows the guitar call-and-responses are the musical equivalent of a Morris Day pout.
“Let’s Make a Baby”
From: Emancipation (1996)
Emancipation boasts so many relaxed jams it’s hard to pick a standout; having said goodbye to aping contemporary R&B (would Jermaine Dupri and Dallas Austin have suited him anyway?) and hip hop (would Tupac?), Prince created and populated his own world—another purple world. This track—where the baby is incidental to the favor the woman would do him by relieving him of his load—uses a piano elaboration worthy of Herbie Hancock in his mid ‘60s run with Miles Davis, and a bass guitar run for the sake of carving an unusual amount of space. Wanting another person who might give birth to his child is an experience solemn enough to leave the canvas blank, awaiting the master’s hand to sketch.
From: The Truth (1998)
Ani DiFranco was much on Prince’s mind in the late nineties. Aware that he had lost his battle against Warner Brothers, he looked to younger contemporaries for distribution advice, especially a singer-songwriter whose overhead was low and owned her material. This little bauble is another example of Prince dusting off a basic acoustic chord progression while using his whisper-to-a-scream approach. “Everybody’s got a right to love / Everybody’s got a right to lie,” he coos, espousing what every artist worth a damn believes is The Truth—if not the actual truth.